Review: The Dragons of Dunkirk

The Dragons of Dunkirk

dragonsdunkirkcover

Damon Alan’s The Dragons Of Dunkirk grabbed me the moment I looked at the cover. Naturally, I thought of Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, only with fantasy invaders instead of sci-fi ones. I also thought of an early Fuldapocalypse review, Dark War Revelation, only set forty years earlier.

So, the German supernatural unlocking goes horrifically wrong, leaving the world exposed to a classical fantasy realm ruled by an ancient wizard (but not a zombie sorceress, sadly). Multiple characters of both sides take in the conflict as it ensues.

There’s a lot this book hasn’t done well. The dialogue is a little stiff, and the action not the best. The worldbuilding on the fantasy side isn’t the most truly distinctive.The characters, while adequate, aren’t more than that.

But what it does do well outweighs that. Alan manages to keep the conflict between a magical and technologically advanced side balanced in a way that doesn’t seem too contrived. (I’ll just say that bullets are something they can withstand to a big degree, but artillery shells are something else).

It has a great concept and an execution that, though imperfect, doesn’t squander it in any way. What’s not to like?

 

Review: Himmler’s War

Himmler’s War

I decided it was time to read one of the most infamous names in alternate history. Entering one of my “moods”, I figured, “go for Robert Conroy, and reverse your order of preference.” Normally I’d pick out the most bizarre premise, and Conroy, with his flock of “US gets invaded” novels, certainly has a lot of those. But for this, I chose the most cliche and shopworn one of all-Himmer’s War, which features that obscure and understudied conflict, World War II.

The divergence is simple to explain-a lucky hit from an off-course Allied bomber kills Hitler after D-Day, the titular SS head takes over, and proceeds to change the war, viewed from the usual top-to-bottom viewpoint characters.

Now it was probably a big mistake reading one of David Glantz’s books on the history of the Red Army right before this, especially with the scenes involving the Soviets. This is one of the most pop-historical, “wehraboo” books ever.

  • In about a month, the Germans can conduct major reforms and become better (sort of).
  • Stalin agrees to peace just because Bagration is slowing down.
  • Stalin agrees to give the Germans huge numbers of T-34s in exchange for one collaborating general. Oh-K?
  • The Germans build an atomic bomb before Skorzeny sneaks it to Moscow and detonates it, killing Stalin.

And then in the later part of the book the Americans just bulldoze their way across the Rhine anyway and win quickly, throwing in a “noble Clean Wehrmacht Rommel” to save the day and neatly clean up the potentially messy aftermath, because Conroy realized he didn’t use that particular World War II alternate history cliche yet.

That part of the book is legitimately interesting because it’s where Conroy’s failure as an alternate historian intersects “perfectly” with Conroy’s failure as a writer. It’s the sort of thing that, ideally, would take two books…

…Or zero, because, alternate history aside, Conroy’s writing isn’t the greatest. His characters are all cliches of some sort. The dialogue is horrendous. And finally, his writing of battles leaves something to be desired. Given that he’s writing a book taking place during a war, this is a big problem. Add in too many characters for their own good and minor, useless subplots like FDR having a stroke and barely living to his next inauguration.

There’s a reason why Conroy has the reputation that he has, and it’s a justified one. Even as “soft alternate history” and as a cheap thriller, Himmler’s War falls short.

 

Review: Marching Through Georgia

Marching Through Georgia

marchingthroughgeorgiacover

For a while, SM Stirling’s Draka series was a lightning rod for controversy in the online alternate history community. So I wanted to see how these tales of a continent-spanning slave empire fared as books, minus the controversy over their “plausibility”. Fittingly, I started with Marching Through Georgia.

As the paratroopers jump into the Caucasus, there are anachronistic assault rifles and Vasilek-style automortars against Kar98ks and MG34s. There are the equivalent of postwar MBTs with gun stabilizers. Now it’s not quite the most exaggerated “Vietnam technology against a WWII army” some people have claimed and the Drakan characters are certainly challenged, but it’s unmistakably clear that the Drakans are better than the Germans they’re fighting, that they have better equipment and are better fighters. The deck is clearly stacked and the “These are author’s pets” alarms are clearly ringing. So I could see why the backlash came.

In literary terms, the prose is functional even with a lot of clunky exposition to establish how the timeline diverged (a problem hardly unique to it). There are worse stories out there. The biggest problem is that the Draka themselves aren’t just unsympathetic, they’re uninteresting.

Although to be fair, this never really rises above the level of “slam-bang action war story with even more sleazy titillation thrown in”. In fact, it got to the point where I felt that all the effort expended in (not unreasonably) critiquing its plausibility seemed like punching down.

Take a decent-at-best war romp story with an inherently pulpy nation, add in a bunch of BISEXUAL AMAZONS, and for good measure, toss in some of the  understandable “commercial alternate history” tropes like “there’s still people and events the readers will recognize despite the point of divergence being centuries ago”. Now think-would something like that really stand up to massive, gigantic scrutiny over its plausibility? Would you even expect it to?

Review: The Peace of Amiens

Drake’s Drum: The Peace Of Amiens

drakesdrumcover

A fresh Sea Lion Press Release and the first book in an intended series, Drake’s Drum: The Peace Of Amiens is classic “crunchy” alternate history. Starting with flaws in British naval shells being fixed in World War I and a more decisive British victory at Jutland, the “butterflies” spiral off until a bankrupt Britain throws in the towel in World War II, the Caucasus is overrun and the Soviet economy collapses, and the stage is set for a German-American confrontation (the cover depicts Amerika Bombers striking New York, with the book ending on a cliffhanger).

The book cuts between character vignettes and “pseduo-history”. I didn’t get the most out of the character scenes, as well intended as they were, save for one chilling scene depicting the Madagascar Plan in “action”. Thus like a lot of alternate history, it leans a lot on plausibility.

And here, it does better than many others. I’ll also admit to not being the biggest fan of this kind of genre, but this is how to do it right. First, there’s very clearly a lot of research being done, and it being done in a good way. Second, there’s a sense that a lot of it feels right. There are handwaves like the war outcomes and stumbles like my pet peeve of the pool of American political candidates being too small. But there’s more things that sound right and plausible, especially compared to other alternate histories.

For people who like detailed alternate history, The Peace of Amiens is a treat.

 

Review: Homecoming

Homecoming

homecomingcover

John Schettler’s Homecoming is two things. The first is yet another entry in a ridiculously long soap opera Axis of Time knockoff with a Kirov battlecruiser sent back in time to World War II. While it’s been stated that this book could serve as a standalone beginning and people didn’t need to read the previous 40 (!) books to get it, I still felt a little lost.

The second is a contemporary World War III and a glorified let’s play/after action report of Command: Modern Air/Naval Operations (think a stiffer version of The War That Never Was). When I read the battle scenes, there was this suspicious part of me that went “ok, these are so rote and so exact that it looks like he was simming them through Command or Harpoon or some other wargame.” And it turns out that he was.

I was happy because of all my work with and use of Command. No matter what my feelings are regarding the literary quality of such a work, I felt happy and kind of proud of it being used in such a fashion.

As for leaning so heavily on wargaming itself, well, I’ve kind of adopted a more “glass half-full” approach to it. In the past, I’d have probably denounced it dramatically along the lines of “why should I read about a wargame when I can play it?”. Now, in no small part thanks to my horizons being broadened by many other books, I’ve softened somewhat.

I still can and will criticize books (like this) for being too much like a rigid let’s play/after action report. I still feel using wargaming as an exactly transcribed play-by-play (ie, 10 A-6 Intruders escorted by eight F-14 Tomcats launched to bomb ________…) rather than just to get a general feel for the situation (ie, “how much of a threat is ______’s air force to a carrier air wing? What’s a good figure for how many aircraft I should have the protagonist carrier lose?), isn’t the best way to go if one is making a literary story.

But at the same time, I’ve gotten a renewed appreciation for wargaming in fiction, even in cases like this. What I feel it does is add at least some more plausibility than would be the case in a less-researched book. And it simply isn’t the case that moving the “technical plausibility and detail” slider forward causes the “literary quality” slider to automatically go backward.

Leaving the battles aside, one of the biggest issues with Homecoming is the pacing, especially in matters of conversation. Let me just say that it’s easy to see why the Kirov series had 40 books before this one. It’s a shame, because a series that involves a time-traveling battlecruiser and properly wargamed-out divergences holds a lot of promise. It’s just the execution leaves something to be desired.

Review: Strike Force Red

Strike Force Red

strikeforceredcover

C. T. Glatte’s Strike Force Red is an alien World War II. The book might invite comparisons to Harry Turtledove’s Worldwar series, but is actually much different.

Aliens, wishing to take over the world to repair their damaged spaceship, land, kill Hitler, make Stalin into their pawn, and then proceed to form a League of Evil with everyone from Mao to Vorster on their side before sending a Soviet army to invade Alaska. Opposing them are, of course, the Americans with anachronistic P-51s (with even more anachronistic female pilots) and Sherman tanks.

So, I’ll get this out of the way. Historical war novels are generally not my thing. Especially not World War II novels. I’m just weird in how I judge them, and a lot of my feelings on the genre can be boiled down to “if I want to read about a historical conflict, I’ll read a history book”. So I’d be lying if I said this bias wasn’t slanting my review.

That being said, this book has a lot of wasted potential. High on the list are the aliens themselves. They’re mustache twirling puppy kickers who fail to be anything but the sort of “pop-up antagonists” usually reserved for spacesuit commandos. They’re not complex or developed or deep. Improving them would be easy as sincerely believing their rule to be ideal for humanity’s improvement (like XCOM’s Ethereals) or being able to be better than Stalin and thus inspire genuine loyalty among their subjects would make them more interesting. Or both-they clean up and improve in authoritarian and/or war-torn areas, earn the loyalty of the populace, and then find that wealthier, freer countries don’t take as kindly to them.

Barring that, they could at least be entertaining space opera megalomaniacs. They’re not. The aliens come across as being like washed-up actors who are desperate for a paycheck, so they put on the rubber alien suit and phone in their lines for the B-movie they hate but do anyway for the money.

But even higher is the technology, which seems very unimaginative. I don’t expect a deep examination of industrial capacity in the 1930s, but going straight to P-51s and Shermans in 1940 because those are the most famous is both inaccurate and dull. Likewise for T-34s and “MiGs”. The alien technology is rarely exploited and, in practice, amounts to just a way to get a Soviet army over to Alaska. It’s like a Fuldapocalyptic story where in 198X, a zombie sorceress full of magic explicitly appears and starts World War III-and all she does is torture animals for fun and move a motor rifle brigade to Iceland.

This book should have featured multi-turret tanks with deathrays against American Heroes in pulp science contraptions. Instead it’s just a rote war drama with all of the potential it had in its plot left unexploited.

Review: Atlantisch Crusaders

Atlantisch Crusaders

Collin Gee’s Atlantisch Crusaders tells an alternate history tale of World War II. Namely, it tells the story of an armistice in the west that leads to the formation of an Anglo-American volunteer unit in the Waffen-SS that joins Barbarossa. Now the reputation of World War II fiction, especially concerning those two letters, had me on very, very high alert. I was not going to give it any slack.

In literary terms, it was neither as bad or good as I feared. Historical war fiction isn’t really my cup of tea (I read this primarily because of the alternate history aspect and likely wouldn’t have if it had been a straight historical war novel with volunteers from another country), so I’m not the best judge. It’s not as bad as it could have been (the writing isn’t too bad) but it’s not also not as good as it could have been (the writing is dry and a little AAR-y). So if this was the story of a totally fictional war between Teutonia and Krasnovia without any other context or baggage, I’d have dismissed it as a “49 to 51%” book and left it at that.

But it isn’t. And alarm bell after alarm bell roared in my mind as I read this book. There’s a mention of the “unique comradeship that set the Waffen-SS apart from other forces” early on. Then they cross the border, and the words “hordes” and “human waves” are used to describe the Soviet counterattacks. To be slightly fair, the book does take place in 1941, when the skill gap between the two armies was at its height-but remember, no slack.

But then there’s the whitewashing. One of the first things the legion sees as it enters the USSR is the aftermath of a massacre-committed by Stalin’s security forces. Then there’s tale after tale of captured members of the Atlantisch Legion and their brutal, cruel fate at the hands of the Soviets. It’s not ahistorical, but the one-sidedness combined with the overall tone of the book made me uneasy, to say the least.

In contrast, it takes about 2/3s the length of the book before some of the SS volunteers finally commit an atrocity-and it’s one they’re quickly punished for, and one which many feel “uneasy” about. There’s the handwringing of “oh no, these war crimes are happening”, with the whole “Look, we’re the good noble warrior Waffen-SS, we’re not the murdering Totenkopfverbande-SS” dodge.

Even the nature of the battles the legion fights, with many spectacular affairs against Red Army regulars and their huge arrays of tanks and artillery, is both suspicious (being rear area security is more likely) and contributing to the “wehrabooism” of it all. It read like a western Cold War depiction of the Eastern Front-but it was written very recently. And the rest of the book is not good enough-not nearly good enough- to make up for the moral queasiness I felt with this.

Review: The Fourth Reich

The Fourth Reich

bef4cover

After the cataclysmic misfire of Blood Ivory, the Black Eagle Force series returns to its greatest form in The Fourth Reich.

Following in the wake of such great literary works as the Bionic Commando video game and that deep, haunting movie, They Saved Hitler’s Brain, the book pits the BEF against the high-tech Reich from its base in South America. Any book that has Hitler reawaken in a clone body and immediately demand to know where his mustache is can’t be truly bad.

And the BEF is never more in its element then when it’s dogfighting against Horten flying wings. This is the kind of enemy they were made to face. Thus this book, for all its slight clunkiness, remains as big a joy as Eye Of The Storm and Sacred Mountain were.

Review: The Red Collusion

The Red Collusion

redcollusioncover

David Yaron’s The Red Collusion is a tale of rogue Soviets in 1981 attempting to start World War III, leading to a climax where they attempt to attack an American ballistic missile submarine.

This book is mostly pedestrian but has managed to surprise me in one regard-the sheer number of conference room scenes. The ratio of “people talking” scenes to “people actually doing something” scenes is very, very, high.

It’s realistic to have people talking and arguing about a big plan before they (attempt to) carry it out, but it’s also realistic to have cars stopped at red lights. Imagine a travel book where the author described every single red light, stop sign, and gas station the car stopped at, as well as every single argument the occupants of the car had about where to stop for gas or food. And then in the final action, there’s a time limit-so they urgently, reluctantly, and desperately stop at those traffic lights.

This is the technothriller version of that. Much of the book, apart from a few decently-written if generic spy fiction scenes, consists of the conspirators talking. It amounts to chapter after chapter of…

“Let’s do this.”

(cue long explanation of and preparations for what they want to do.)

“Actually, it would be better if we did this.”

(cue long explanation/plot thread)

“No, we should really do this.

(you get the idea).

Once they finally get going, the rushed “action” isn’t the worst, but isn’t exactly good either. This leaves the book as a strangely amusing novelty. The Red Collusion is saved from  simple mediocrity by taking a genre trope to ridiculous excess. I’ll leave it up to the readers to decide if it’s a good or bad thing.